Time to face some truths about Obama

We now are hearing that President Obama’s honeymoon with voters is over, that his poll numbers are falling, that the soaring rhetoric of the campaign no longer makes the Democratic faithful swoon so easily.

If this is a real trend and not temporary disgruntlement, it is a good thing.

For too long, Democrats, especially progressives, have been reluctant to openly criticize Obama, the nation’s first black president. They want him to succeed, and they believe that serious public criticism from inside the party would hurt their man and egg on angry Republicans hell-bent on not being reasonable.

Progressives do not seem to realize that support for Obama does not mean that they must ignore truths about his policies. The public interest is undermined when truths about policies are ignored.

If, however, a recent article in The New York Times about the American anti-war movement’s plans for a campaign against administration policies on Afghanistan is a bellwether of what is to come from progressives on a range of other issues, we are witnessing the emergence of earnest criticism (not the braying of conservative talk-show hosts) that has been sorely missing since Obama’s election.

From the beginning, I have thought that Obama — to his detriment — has been riding a wave of euphoria that inoculates him and his policies from the hard analysis of his supporters and others, many on the other side of the aisle, who genuinely disagree. This is a dangerous phenomenon in every way.

Few public intellectuals, scholars or anyone else understood this matter better than the late Walter Lippmann, the award-winning journalist whose essays and columns on national and international politics enlightened many leaders.

In his 1939 essay, "The Indispensable Opposition," Lippmann explains why free people and their leaders should earnestly listen to the voices on the other side of issues if democracy is to survive as a viable way of life: "The democratic system cannot be operated without effective opposition. For in making the great experiment of governing people by consent rather than by coercion, it is not sufficient that the party in power should have a majority. That means that it must listen to the minority and be moved by the criticisms of the minority. That means that its measure must take account of the minority’s objections, and that it must remember that the minority may become the majority.

"The opposition is indispensable. A good statesman, like any other sensible human being, always learns more from his opponents than from his fervent supporters. For his supporters will push him to disaster unless his opponents show him where the dangers are. So if he is wise, he will pray to be delivered from his friends, because they will ruin him."

Impatient to see progress in Afghanistan and wanting to see Obama succeed, for example, many Obama supporters remain silent on the bad news coming out of the eight-year war the president has adopted as his own, a war with the potential to wreck his domestic agenda. Although Democrats may be telling pollsters that they do not support the Afghan war, few are voicing their opposition publicly. This silence, intended to protect Obama, has taken on a vengeance, as experienced by documentary filmmaker Robert Greenwald, who made an Internet film titled "Rethink Afghanistan."

The film takes a raw look at civilian casualties, women’s rights and other issues that put into question official claims that the war is making our shores safer. According to The New York Times, in a campaign to raise funds for the project, Greenwald acquiesced to the advice of liberals and toned down the film. "We lost funding from liberals who didn’t want to criticize Obama," he told the newspaper. "It’s been lonely out there." Who could think that this kind of coercion benefits Obama and the nation in the long run? The good news is that anti-war groups, such as VoteVets.org, Code Pink and Families Speak Out, are going forward with plans to mount nationwide protests this autumn against the Afghan war. Although leaders of these groups acknowledge that they will have trouble raising money and attracting warm bodies for demonstrations, they are pleased that the movement is showing signs of a reawakening.

They represent, as Lippmann would argue, the indispensable opposition that Obama needs to hear to get back on the path of reason and good sense.

(Bill Maxwell is a columnist for the St. Petersburg Times. E-mail maxwell(at)sptimes.com)